Thursday, July 18, 2013

Personal Computer Costs and Trade-Offs

My family uses computers quite a bit. We have a desktop machine for each of us. We’ve had quite a bit of success with hitting the right combinations of options to keep the costs per year low. When my wife’s computer finally stopped working, we had to go through the process of choosing options once again.
Everyone has different ideas about what work they’re willing to do to keep a computer running. My list is roughly one item long: pay money. If some component in the tower breaks, the whole tower goes. If the machine has too little memory for my needs, then the whole tower goes. If the operating system gets too corrupted to fix without reinstalling it, then the whole tower goes; the several times I’ve tried wiping a hard disk and starting over have not been worth the effort. I’ll work hard to save my data, but then the tower gets replaced.

In the past, I usually chose to upgrade from the minimum RAM, hard disk, and processor to get a machine that would last 5 or 6 years instead of the roughly 2 years that a bare-bones machine can be expected to last. But, things have changed. Processors are more than powerful enough for my wife and me. Hard disks have far more capacity than we need for most things; we use an external drive for backups.

So, that just leaves RAM. Most of the cheap desktop specials we see have had 8 GB of RAM. This is enough for us today, but it seems likely that applications will keep getting fatter and hogging more RAM. My gut feel is that doubling the RAM to 16 GB will extend the computer’s useful life from 2 years to about 4 years. If I’m right, then this is a good upgrade because it certainly doesn’t double the computer’s price.

I’m interested in other ideas for keeping yearly computer costs down without sacrificing usability.

19 comments:

  1. I too think you are a really good writer!! :-)

    Memory does seem to be the cheapest and best way to extend a systems lifespan. The only other interesting idea might be to go "into the cloud" for your house and set up a Computing and Storage "server" which you rely on for your computing power and have mostly cheap and cheerful systems elsewhere?

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    1. @Big Cajun Man: I have to get rid of a few of those spam comments every day.

      SOme of my stuff is in the cloud (mostly email). For now, if I lose internet connectivity or a few hours I can still play solitaire.

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  2. Michael,
    you really could improve on your selection process :)
    IMHO, computer is a set of hardware with software with an ultimate purpose of processing and keeping data.

    1. Using cloud backup service, such as Dropbox, fully eliminates the danger of losing data. Use this link - http://db.tt/Ks1vHRF to get your 5GB to start with
    2. To save time on re-installation, when the need comes (not if, but when) I use Acronis True Image software. If my system misbehaves, it takes several clicks and a cup of coffee to bring it to right-after-installation state. To make it happen one must have three partitions on hard drive: System, Data and Backup. Acronis creates backups of System on Backup. Dropbox keeps a copy of Data in the cloud. Nothing is ever lost, including time.
    3. RAM can almost always be added on the go. Check Task Manager to see if your current work load is limited by memory.
    4. What is a desktop, anyway? laptops are in the same price range as desktops and provide additional convenience
    5. The most important in selecting hardware is not specks, but reliability: specks with become obsolete the day you bring your new computer home. If you value your time, brand is more important than price. And here nothing compares with Lenovo (in which I have no commercial interest). Maybe Sony if one likes shiny things. Not Dell, not HP, and certainly not Asus, et al.
    6. If you really need space to keep you stuff, 1 big network disk is a way better solution than fighting for bigger disks at individual computers.
    7. Wireless is nice, but not as fast and reliable as Ethernet over power line. N+1 device will have N computers connected through your home with wire level speed and reliability.

    IMHO :)

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    1. @AnatoliN: Some of your suggestions sounds reasonable to me, but a few make me nervous. I'd rather have my backups under my own control. I find laptops very unreliable. I have one from work that needs servicing roughly quarterly, which is only tolerable to me because I can just throw it over to our IT group. Trying to add RAM has never worked out for me.

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    2. Let me bet: your office laptop is not from Lenovo?
      Adding RAM requires two crucial skills: reading label on installed chip(s) and operating a non-electric screwdriver :)

      Dropbox meets government-grade security and reliability specifications.

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    3. @AnatoliN: When things go well, adding RAM is easy. However, you can dislodge dust to mess up a fan or power supply, you can accidentally fry some other component or dislodge some cable, sometimes the OS can't seem to find the new RAM, some problem with the new RAM can prevent the machine from booting at all, ... All these potential problems are low probability, but when I value my time reasonably (based on hating having to do any of this stuff), adding RAM to squeeze an extra year out of a machine is more expensive than buying a new machine. You mileage may vary.

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  3. I used to be a huge desktop guy but now I've found my family works better with laptops. Wireless access now works well in all 4 stories of our house and even in our backyard (thanks to a signal booster) and I've found I just prefer having the option of not sitting in one spot if I don't want. Downside is laptops are more expensive. ;(

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    1. @Anonymous: I like having one laptop for traveling, but trying to deal with all their problems would infuriate me. I would probably end up replacing laptops in less than a year because I have no patience for fixing them.

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  4. I've found one of the best things you can do to extend the usable life of a computer is to use an SSD vs. a regular spinning HD.

    I recently swapped the spinning HD for an SSD on a 6 yr. old computer, and I couldn't believe how well it performed after the change. However, this was running Windows XP, not a newer OS like Windows 7.

    While they can be expensive on a per GB basis, I have a NAS setup in my house that all computers use for mass storage. A computer's HD is only for the OS and applications. I find something like a 120GB disk is more than enough for this purpose (even 60GB may be enough for many).

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    1. @Returns Reaper: My son got an SSD for improved performance for gaming. I don't think I'd go to the trouble of trying to add an SSD to an existing computer, but buying a new computer with an SSD might make sense.

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  5. My best computer decision was marrying someone who loves computers the way some men love cars. He reads specs for enjoyment. He can argue with store clerks like Dilbert at Electrode Hut. (http://search.dilbert.com/comic/Or%20Am%20I%20Bluffing for those who don't already have this one pinned to their cubicle wall.)

    He bought me an Asus laptop in 2008 for a half-way-round-the-world-and-back trip that has never needed anything done to it. It's used daily for several hours. And it has clocked lots of physical miles since then, too.

    My 1997 desktop still runs fine but the internet has finally eluded its grasp. Makes a great standalone for documenting finances on, though, and I can still write books and manuals without a problem on it, then burn them to CD and shift them to another computer.

    For the person/s who mentioned laptops rule, I disagree. If you write a lot on the computer you run a serious risk of a RSI using a laptop only. You need a desk with a significantly adjustable platform for keyboard and mouse height and a good keyboard. You need to be able to adjust the monitor height to within a quarter inch as well. You may not notice a problem now, but if you use a computer as your primary work engine, in 30+ years you can be in big trouble if you don't use correct ergonomics.

    For those of you who already married a technophobe, I suggest cultivating a close friendship with a computerphile. My husband has been the "help desk" for many of his friends and family for years. : )

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    1. @Bet Crooks: Both my wife and I are able to fix many types of computer problems; we just don't like doing it. I'd much rather go to work to earn enough money to buy a new hassle-free computer.

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    2. on "If you write a lot on the computer you run a serious risk of a RSI using a laptop only." - You're 100% right. I did not mention that I use external ergonomic keyboard and second monitor on high stand.

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  6. I know it's not for everyone, but using a Mac, being minimalist with what you instal and save offline, and having enough RAM as you mentioned, allows using a refurbished or used laptop to be a great value for money option. I've gone this way twice and will continue to because its been an effective strategy -next to no maintenance or troubleshooting (I can't imagine any household chore more life-sucking than computer related crap tech crap!).

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    1. @uc: I'm with you on the life-sucking "computer related crap tech crap." I used a Mac a long time ago. I like them, but I find I still have occasional problems with sharing files between Macs and Windows machines. My wife and I interact with many people who are not computer-savvy. We have to make sure we send them spreadsheets in an old Excel format, etc. Interoperability keeps improving, but I'm not ready to make the leap.

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  7. Don't listen to that hippie macintosh crap :).

    I went to linux and haven't looked back since - and saved a ton on computers. All my business computers are linux,as well as anyone in the family that uses me for tech support. Since I put my family on it, there's been 0 tech support calls.

    For my business, my last computer lasted I think 7-8 years. I killed it dead accidentally, otherwise I might still be running it. I replaced it with a low end $300 tower a couple of years ago and did the same with my admin's computer. 4 gigs of ram, low end cpu, and it's overkill for everything. I have 0 expectation of upgrading the computers in the forseeable future. Oh, I might get bigger screens and SSD drives, but the basic machine will last until it burns out.

    I have a remote office setup for my associate brokers (phone and secure access to our client database). Those machines also run linux, and all they have are $200 media computers that hang on the back of their monitor.

    That's what you get with linux. You want hardware savings, switch to linux. No more maintenance, no more need for high end hardware.

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    1. No Linux will protect you from hardware issues, imho. If you disk or motherboard goes they do not ask about installed system.

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    2. @Glenn: I've tried Linux a few times over the years. Many years ago it was completely unusable, but about a year ago things seemed a lot better. However, we ran into enough problems that we gave up and used Windows. I'll likely try again sometime. Linux really does make good use of machine resources and is so much more stable than Windows.

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  8. 8GB Ram? I'm still on a 10 year old Windows XP desktop and getting by (just!) on 512 MB Ram. Hard to believe, I know, but I'm coping and will continue to do so until it just doesn't work anymore.

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